3 deaths of homeless people tied to storm-swollen Sonoma County streams

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Three homeless men have died since the start of the year in or near Sonoma County waterways swollen by storms, with two of the deaths reported early this week, underscoring the dangers an already vulnerable unsheltered population faces during the North Bay’s wet winters.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office identified the homeless man found dead Monday near the Russian River along Neeley Road in Guerneville as 30-year-old Alex Colmar. Another man found dead Monday in Foss Creek in Healdsburg has been identified but coroner’s investigators were still searching for members of his family before releasing his name.

Autopsies were being conducted to determine what happened to the men. Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said foul play did not appear to be a factor in either death.

The pair of deaths followed the Jan. 7 discovery of the body of Christopher Blades — a 46-year-old Santa Rosa man believed to be homeless and initially misidentified by law enforcement — in Santa Rosa Creek.

The three bodies were found after heavy rains transformed streams throughout the county into surging, brown torrents, imperiling homeless people who seek refuge along their wooded banks.

“This is definitely what I was extraordinarily worried about with these rains and the cold,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, one of the region’s largest homeless service providers.

People often take shelter near creeks to make themselves less of a target for crime or avoid other “external pressures,” such as law enforcement, Holmes said.

That behavior is more common in rural areas, where homeless people can be reticent to seek services or housing, she said. Colmar was among the people known to be living in the lower river area — a population that outreach workers have contacted but with little success, Holmes said.

Tim Miller, executive director of West County Community Services, which operates a seasonal shelter in Guerneville, said many of the roughly 230 homeless people between Forestville and Jenner live in encampments near the river.

“People go where they think they can be,” Miller said, explaining that the wooded riverbanks offer something elusive for homeless residents — privacy and a marginal amount of security. “It’s easier to do that in an encampment on the Russian River than on the main street in Guerneville.”

But riverside encampments seem to be less common in the winter, he said, “because of what we just saw.”

The latest deaths came after sharp increases in both the volume and speed of water in the Russian River following last week’s storm. The bodies were discovered Monday after the highest flows subsided.

Kathleen Finigan, a local homeless advocate, voiced frustration over the deaths and noted that shorter life expectancies associated with exposure to the elements are “part of the reality of homelessness.”

“I don’t know how they end up in creeks, but I know they freeze to death,” she said.

Overall, since Jan. 1 seven homeless people have died according to an unofficial tally compiled by Catholic Charities. The other four deaths do not appear to be weather-related, according to the group.

The most recent annual census, from a count conducted a year ago, found about 3,000 people were homeless in Sonoma County, a 6 percent increase, with housing fallout from the 2017 fires expected to continue to push more people into homelessness.

Sonoma County declared a state of emergency last year to bolster its bids for outside funding to address the issue. Santa Rosa, with the area’s largest homeless population, made a similar declaration in 2016, and a year later began cracking down on unsanctioned encampments, efforts that dispersed more of the chronically homeless people.

The city is racing to increase its supply of shelter beds, requesting about $3.6 million this month in state emergency homelessness funds to repair the county’s largest homeless shelter, Sam Jones Hall, and convert the old Bennett Valley Senior Center into a 60-bed shelter.

Almost 2,000 people are without shelter in the county on any given night, experts say, so the recent string of storms has led to noticeably greater strain on those in regular contact with outreach workers. Many lack the basic resources that would allow them to know what weather lies ahead, leaving them even more exposed at this time of the year, Holmes said.

“There’s a lot of trauma about being cold and wet that they’ve had to survive,” she said.

Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rossmannreport.

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